Hayekian Escape from Circular Argument

January 6, 2010

by Chidem Kurdas

Gene Callahan’s incisive post and the absorbing discussion that it generated here on ThinkMarkets can be taken as support for a Hayekian rather than a Hobbesian framework, not the least because by starting with Hayek, you can get to a substantive answer to Hobbes.

Gene, with his usual razor-sharp logic, points out that “if Hobbes is right, and without Leviathan we are in the ‘Warre of all against all,’ then the sovereign is justified in doing whatever is necessary to keep us out of that state.” Ergo, to argue that taxes are an unjust coercion, you have to show “that the State is not a necessary element of social order.”

After 82 comments and counting, there is no resolution. This all-or-nothing way of  looking at government coercion always leads to a dead end. Of course most people fear a short, nasty, brutish etc. life, so they settle for Leviathan with all the trimmings. Put that way, there is no argument against the tax collector.

The real question – whether in the 1770s or now – is how to limit government. Admittedly, I write from one side of the divide Brian Doherty describes at Reason.com (cited by Gene)— “the no-compromise, anti-statist Rothbardians versus the more classical liberal, utilitarian, fallibilist, prudential Hayekians.”

Don’t know about the “fallibilist” part, but the prudential Hayekian principle “that in ordering our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion,” provides the unifying framework for evaluating collective action in all areas and finding how much of the coercion (and taxes) can be dispensed with.

For sure, this is a much messier mental exercise than deriving immutable first principles from abstract logic. There are no hard-and-fast rules, as Hayek noted (in The Road to Serfdom, p. 17, for instance). But, for a certain time and place, you can get a specific answer—say, that around 80% of taxes are unjust, because the activities they pay for are not necessary to avoid Hobbes’ “Warre of all against all.”

The participants in Gene’s discussion may not like a framework that gives you a changeable percentage rather than a rock-solid principle. But as Mr. Doherty says, that difference is an issue for the far future.

Of course, people disagree as to how much is necessary to keep social order. But most government activities have nothing to do this goal—Mario Rizzo recently outlined the results of dreadful, as well as wasteful, policies in three huge areas.

19 Responses to “Hayekian Escape from Circular Argument”

  1. Pete Canning Says:

    Would you not have to prove that Leviathan is better than Warre?

  2. Eric H Says:

    Has Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel chipped away at Hobbes’ idea?

    I’d like to think so.

    I’d tag “be sure to identify what is government and what is not” onto the real question of how to limit government. Ostrom makes a clear distinction between communal arrangements for resource allocation and coercion by the “big guys with guns.”

  3. chidemkurdas Says:

    Pete, good question. Looking at it in a simple way, Warre causes wide carnage, so any government that causes less carnage would be better. Historically, people generally appear to have preferred even ghastly rulers to civil war. For instance, the people of ancient Rome didn’t mind Caligula–his murders, while numerous, did not reach the extreme destruction of civil war.

  4. chidemkurdas Says:

    Eric, you’re right, I’ll have to pay more attention to Ostrom. I have not read much of her writings. When I was in graduate school, nobody mentioned her!

  5. Gene Callahan Says:

    Eric and Pete, it is just these sorts of considerations that I was trying to indicate that libertarians ought to be addressing in my original post.

  6. Pete Canning Says:

    It would seem the most obvious rebuttal is, utility cannot be evaluated or accounted for beyond the personal level. Thus, the only person fit to decide if they prefer leviathan to “warre” is the individual for himself. Personally, I think the state has a perpetual “warre” upon me. I will take my chances with “all.”

  7. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Personally (!), I do not care about utility here. I do care that wealth is higher outside of a state of war. And I bet that almost everyone would choose social arrangements that minimize the *sum* of the costs of war and of Leviathan. This is the night-watchman state. Nothing more is necessary to show. I live in a simple world!

  8. chidemkurdas Says:

    I agree, utility is not the issue here. Mainstream economists represent choices as the maximization of a utility function. But that’s probably not a very good way to explain human behavior because a lot of behavior is not really explained that way. What we know is that people do not like living in a state of war once they get a taste of it.

  9. chidemkurdas Says:

    Gene, your effort is admirable and there is no question that were an argument provided along the lines you indicated, it would be very powerful. That has not happened yet. Meanwhile, the night-watchman state is buried under gigantic re-distribution programs and other immense interventions. A huge portion of government action is not about establishing order.

  10. chidemkurdas Says:

    Pete, civil war usually ends with a centralized, powerful government in place–in ancient Rome, civil wars led to the downfall of the republic and the establishment of emperors. If civil war persists it does horrendous damage–as in Somalia. By comparison, an effective night-watchman state is better no matter what criterion you use.

  11. Eric H Says:

    Chidem,

    I agree. In fact, I think a huge portion of government action is about establishing disorder–of nurturing the warre, or at least a scaled down version of it. Doing so distracts the polity’s attention from the rent seeking of the political class and its dependents. I’m thinking along the lines of Toqueville and also Milton Friedman’s Tyranny of the Status Quo.

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    Eric, you have a good point. It is a real danger. Once rent seeking gets fully established, it encourages all manner of shenanigans to cover up/justify/glorify myriad interventions. Those result in more government intervention, creating greater opportunity for rent seeking, so there’s a vicious circle.

    I was just checking something in Friedman’s Free to Choose–amazing how far ahead he is of the time.

  13. Pete Canning Says:

    Is it possible that Hobbes was just a terribly worthless thinker who might as well be ignored?

    As to wealth? Why is that even being brought up? People are obviously not all trying to maximize their wealth. However, most all people act in order to improve their lives. Call it utility, or whatever.

    I don’t believe every man has reason to make ‘warre’ against me. The state empowers them to do so. Without such an instrument to facilitate evil, people would likely be far more civil.

  14. chidemkurdas Says:

    Locke’s idea of human nature is often seen as the antithesis to Hobbes’ notion. Pete, your view that it would be benign in the absence of the state fits in with Locke, I think. Given 20th century history, it’s hard to believe that human nature is so benign, but your point is that in the absence of governments people would have been less destructive. But there’s the great line from James Madison–If men were angels, there’d be need for government.

  15. chidemkurdas Says:

    Here’s a description of Locke’s state of nature, in a contrast with Hobbes, from http://jim.com/hobbes.htm
    “In the state of nature men mostly kept their promises and honored their obligations, and, though insecure, it was mostly peaceful, good, and pleasant. He quotes the American frontier and Soldania as examples of people in the state of nature, where property rights and (for the most part) peace existed. “

  16. WOW Says:

    The governments job is to protect the natural rights of its citizens. If it has to trample more rights than it protects by a certain action, it has gone wrong. This does not mean the government can do anything because it must do something.

  17. Pete Canning Says:

    If men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. Since they are not, government begets us endless war, and mass murder on the scale that an unorganized ‘all’ could not even imagine. To think that because men are flawed, we should allow the mob to appoint flawed men to make decisions for us is the essence of insanity.

  18. chidemkurdas Says:

    Starting with the premise that nobody’s an angel, the framers of the the US constitution built in all kinds of checks and balances. That’s the second part of the quote from Madison– If angels ruled men, then there would be no need for a constitution (I’m quoting from memory, so not exact quote). The checks and balances have eroded in various ways and government has blown through its just limits. Shouldn’t the focus be to restore its proper boundaries?

  19. chidemkurdas Says:

    “This does not mean the government can do anything because it must do something.” Yes, but if it can do anything, then it probably will.


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